By CARLA K. JOHNSON, Associated Press
BATAVIA, Ill. (AP) — Four young men from war-ravaged Sudan tower above their teachers and fellow students on the pastoral grounds of a century-old school in suburban Chicago.
Eighteen months after arriving — and just as they are beginning to feel at home — these athletes find themselves at center court in a controversy over high school sports recruiting as officials unravel exactly how they came to tiny Mooseheart High School.
The Illinois High School Association board will consider Monday whether the three basketball players and one cross-country runner are ineligible to compete for the Red Ramblers, after the coach of a rival school's basketball team raised questions.
The administrators at Mooseheart, a small, privately funded school 35 miles west of Chicago, say they accepted the students as part of a long tradition of helping troubled and poor youth. But the executive director of IHSA, which governs the state's interscholastic sports, determined that the school broke a prohibition on high school recruiting when it accepted the teenagers from A-HOPE, an Indiana-based foundation that paid for the athletes to come to the United States and whose founder has drawn NCAA scrutiny.
Mooseheart appealed the preliminary ruling, and a judge allowed 6-foot-7-inch Mangisto Deng, 6-feet-8-inch Makur Puou, and 7-footer Akim Nyang to play at least one more game Wednesday — a 58-51 loss to Hinckley-Big Rock, the school that raised questions. It dropped the Red Ramblers to a 3-3 record.
But the four athletes — all juniors — worry about the IHSA's final decision, and what it will mean for their dreams of attending college on sports scholarships, earning degrees and returning to help Sudan.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday at one of the school's homelike residence halls, they said sport is their ticket to that future.
"We don't have family here. Nobody's going to pay for our college," said Deng, who wore an Indiana University sweatshirt and jeans. "That's why we're working hard in the sport so we can go to college and pay for our scholarships."
Mooseheart's executive director Scott Hart said the student-athletes at the Class 1A have garnered interest from a few mid-major colleges, such as Wichita State and Indiana State.
Though the African students' path to Mooseheart began when the school's basketball coach reached out to A-HOPE, Hart denied that anyone at the school was interested in their athletic abilities before they arrived.
"Nearly any child growing up in Sudan is in somewhat dire straits, living in poverty with no health care and no opportunity for education," he said. "And that's the focus for these boys, the education."
The school is part of Mooseheart Child City and School, a 1,000-acre residential center for children from troubled homes that is supported by the Loyal Order of Moose and the Women of the Moose. Of its 216 students in preschool through grade 12, about 20-25 were born in Africa and immigrated to the United States with their families, Hart said.
By contrast, the Sudanese athletes came here on student visas, helped by A-HOPE, which stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Many of A-HOPE's students play on the founder's AAU basketball team during the summer.
Manute Bol, the Sudanese-born center who spent 13 seasons in the NBA, played a role in the teens' narrative. Bol spoke at the Mooseheart campus in 2005 and, according to court documents filed by Mooseheart's attorneys, inspired basketball coach Ron Ahrens to help African youth.
He took a mission trip to Tanzania in 2009 to work in orphanages. Upon returning, Ahrens started making calls to find Sudanese students that Mooseheart could help.
In January 2010, Ahrens left a voicemail with A-HOPE founder Mark Adams. That May, Adams responded, asking if the school would take a Sudanese student who was losing his scholarship at a high school in Nebraska. That student finished his education at Mooseheart, but never played competitive sports because of IHSA rules that require athletes to sit out a year after switching schools.